The announcement on December 20th that Mepkin Abbey would cease egg production within 18 months is the culmination of events set in motion in January 2007 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The Abbey, home to monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) has produced eggs and organic manure for over 40 years as the main source of income to sustain the Brothers in their devotions and social work. In a statement by the Abbot, Father Stanley Gumula, the Abbey operated its facilities in accordance with accepted industry standards. “The pressures from PETA has made it difficult to live a life of prayer, work and sacred reading," he added, “the monks have also found it difficult to extend hospitality, which is a hallmark, under such conditions.”
According to Mary Jeffcoat, spokesperson for the Abbey in January a visitor gained entrance to the three hen houses holding a total of some 35,000 birds and made clandestine video recordings of the unit and interviewed brothers responsible for the care of the flocks. The video subsequently released by PETA can be viewed at goveg.com/mepkinabbey.asp a website devoted to a vegan lifestyle. The release of the video and publicity in national media featured a letter from Bruce Friedrich, Vice President, International Grassroots Campaigns for PETA dated February 13th 2007 urging the Abbey to cease egg production, citing Pope Benedict XVI and the Catechism, in addition to quoting the usual litany of experts opposed to intensive egg production. The campaign was reinforced by placard-waving protesters outside a chain of supermarkets in Charleston which marketed branded eggs produced by the Abbey.
The PETA video included footage from hatcheries disposing of cockerels and beak treatment which is not reflective of current practice. These activities are not relevant to operations at Mepkin Abbey which purchases started pullets. As at the beginning of 2007 the Abbey was in compliance with the welfare guidelines issued by the United Egg Producers (UEP) with respect to cage density and would have initiated a program of production synchronization (“molting”) applying dietary modification in place of withholding feed in accordance with the UEP Guidelines for flocks placed in 2007.
The implications from the decision by the Abbey to end egg production could be far reaching. In this instance the Brothers did not deviate from industry practice. This would make any compliant egg producer vulnerable to the tactics of PETA including the dissemination of distorted and illegally obtained and edited videos, press releases containing non-factual statements and unjustified public protests. It is evident that PETA and kindred organizations select targets for vulnerability and for maximum exposure value as in the 2006 intrusion at Wayne County Eggs in Wolcott NY. then owned by the Wegman’s Supermarket chain. Although the decision of the religious order to phase out of egg production is understandable it must be viewed as a victory for PETA and creates a precedent which will embolden the opponents of all forms of intensive livestock and poultry production.
Obviously the Industry must be restrained in defending current systems of housing and management of flocks since frontal attack will only lead to further publicity and the opportunity for PETA to repeat half-truths. The 2007 UEP Welfare Guidelines represent a “line in the sand” and are based on sound scientific assessment of the physiological and social needs of hens. Adherence to stocking density, non-starvation molting, conservative beak treatment and humane handling and disposal are essential to maintain consumer goodwill. Purchasers of eggs now have the choice of product derived from cages, barns aviaries or free range systems. Those who are committed to a vegan lifestyle and are constitutionally opposed to consumption of meat and eggs should not attempt to deprive the majority of their right to consume food produced under humane conditions. The UEP Welfare Guidelines require aggressive support by the Egg Industry. We had better become more forceful and persuasive in promoting the program as PETA is in opposition. This will require trained spokespersons and commitment of funds to professional public relations initiatives.